Despite multiple crises, Pakistan elections dominated by personalities

Millions of supporters of the jailed Khan are looking to rally behind him despite what they call a military-backed crackdown on him and his party

Reuters
Published : 6 Feb 2024, 02:24 PM
Updated : 6 Feb 2024, 02:24 PM

Pakistan goes to the polls on Thursday with the jailing of popular former prime minister Imran Khan, the winner of the last national election, dominating headlines despite an economic crisis and other woes threatening the nuclear-armed country.

The South Asian nation of 241 million people is reeling from decades-high inflation and an economy that has come to a grinding halt as it navigates a tough International Monetary Fund (IMF) bailout programme.

Islamist militancy is on the rise and relations with three neighbours - India, Afghanistan and Iran - are frayed. But these matters have been mostly absent from the election fray, in which the parties of Khan and Nawaz Sharif, another former prime minister, are the main rivals.

"This election cycle has had little discussion of issues," said Husain Haqqani, a former Pakistani ambassador to the U.S., currently a scholar at Washington’s Hudson Institute. "It has been a campaign dominated by personalities."

Millions of supporters of the jailed Khan are looking to rally behind him despite what they call a military-backed crackdown on him and his party.

The military wields enormous power in Pakistan but maintains it does not interfere in politics. Analysts say Sharif is being backed by the generals this time, after they preferred Khan at the last election in 2018.

Both former prime ministers say they were ousted at the behest of the military, which it denies.

"There seems to be a clash of victimhood," said Haqqani. "Nawaz Sharif having been victimized from 2017 until 2022 and Imran Khan claiming victimhood after that."

Sharif's party ran full page advertisements on the front pages of major newspapers hours before campaigning ended on Tuesday declaring him "the PM".

Another contender in the fray is Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the son of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto and former president Asif Zardari. He told a rally in the southern city of Karachi on Monday that if the city voted for his party, he was guaranteed to become prime minister.

But despite being in jail and his party decimated by legal cases, Khan and his candidates, running on independent platforms, remain a force.

HUNG PARLIAMENT

Most analysts predict that no single party will come out with a clear majority in parliament, which will necessitate the formation of a coalition government.

That means an incoming administration's decision making will be hobbled at a time swift and decisive policy-making is required to tackle multiple crises.

Foremost among them is the economy, with the current short-term IMF bail-out running out in March, and the incoming government needing to negotiate a new extended programme.

But the election rivals have spoken little about that.

"The 'economic programmes' articulated by the three major contenders for power in their respective election manifestos show that none has an actionable short- to long-term strategy to tackle the daunting economic challenges," Pakistan's English language paper Dawn said in an editorial.

Asfandyar Mir, a senior expert on South Asia security at the Washington-based U.S. Institute of Peace, said neither Khan's nor Sharif's candidates had spoken about resurgent violence in the border regions with Afghanistan. Recent tensions with Iran and India were also absent.

"Neither political party has offered robust foreign and security policy positions," he noted.

The threat of low participation in the election also looms large, and could further undermine the credibility of the exercise.

"Given the current environment and wave of repression across the country, many may not even bother coming out and exercising their right to vote," said Uzair Younis at Washington-based advisory firm Asia Group.

"That of course would be a terrible outcome for a country that professes to be a democracy."